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What's in a Name?

Rhode island is debating whether to change its official name, which reminds some residents of its slave-trading past

By Abby Goodnough

Rhode Island's full name doesn't appear on its state flag or license plates. You won't see it on road maps or welcome signs. But the state's formal name—State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations—is a reminder for some residents of the state's prominent role in the slave trade.

Defenders of the name say that the word "plantation" did not have a negative connotation when Rhode Island was founded in 1636, and that it referred to the state's farming settlements. But the colony's economy did thrive on the slave trade in its early years. In what was known as the triangle trade, Rhode Island imported molasses from the West Indies to distill into rum, traded the rum in Africa for slaves, and then sold the slaves in the West Indies.

"We have more and more people in the state saying, 'Look, change the name,'" says Joseph Almeida, a State Representative from Providence, the capital. "We don't want to change history. We want to add to it."

Although about 90 percent of black slaves lived in the South, most of the ships that brought them to America were based in the North. In fact, 60 percent of American slave-trading voyages originated in Rhode Island, and slaves also worked on many of the state's large farms. In 1784, Rhode Island adopted the Gradual Emancipation Act, which freed all slaves born there after March 1st of that year.

James Campbell, a history professor at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, says that most Americans are unaware of just how pervasive slavery was. "It's not the case of a few families, a few bad men, a few institutions," Campbell told The Boston Globe. "This is a trade. This is an institution which shaped every aspect of American society, culture, and economy for hundreds of years."

The first black slaves brought to the Colonies arrived in Virginia in 1619. Slaves provided a crucial workforce for European settlers, many of whom lacked farming skills and were unaccustomed to physical labor, and the slave trade quickly became a lucrative business. By 1807, an estimated 15 million Africans had been brought to the Americas, chained together in the cramped cargo holds of slave ships. Between 10 and 20 percent died during the six-week voyage.

part of the economic fabric

In 1807, President Thomas Jefferson signed into law a bill that made it illegal to import new slaves. But thousands of slaves were still brought into the country illegally, and slavery continued to be a driver of the U.S. economy—in both the South and the North—for nearly 60 years. By 1860, there were nearly 4 million slaves in a total U.S. population of 31 million. Slavery itself wasn't abolished until the end of the Civil War and the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1865.

The slave trade in Rhode Island and other Northern states created jobs for shipbuilders, shop owners, and carpenters. And as American cities became more industrialized in the 1800s, cotton and other raw materials produced largely by Southern slave labor kept the North's factories humming.

A wide range of businesses profited, directly or indirectly, from slavery. For example, some major railroads were built largely by slave labor. Banks accepted slaves as collateral for loans, insurance companies sold policies on slaves to their owners, and newspapers ran ads for slaves.

As Rhode Islanders consider the name change, Brown University—one of the state's most prominent institutions—is grappling with its own link to the state's slave-trading past. Founded in Providence in 1764, the university was financed largely by a wealthy Rhode Island slave trader, John Brown. Slaves worked on its first building, now known as University Hall, in 1770. The university plans to build a memorial acknowledging its past ties to slavery.

Meanwhile, the Rhode Island State Senate and House of Representatives voted in June to allow a constitutional referendum in which voters will decide whether to change the state's name to State of Rhode Island. (Both houses of the State Legislature must approve one version of the bill before the referendum can take place.)

Almeida, who is black, sponsored the measure in the House. He's pushed for a referendum for a decade, he says, and succeeded after recruiting citizens to help persuade his fellow lawmakers. He says the referendum will probably appear on the ballot in November 2010.

Governor Donald L. Carcieri opposes the change, says his spokeswoman, Amy Kempe. But the Governor will not try to stop it, Kempe says, because he lacks the authority to veto resolutions for constitutional amendments. "The historical definition of the word 'plantation' is 'settlement or colony,'" Kempe says, "and is no way in reference to the most modern definition associated with slavery."

State Representative Alfred A. Gemma of Warwick, one of three House members who opposed the measure, says changing the state's name would be "like tearing down our history."

Symbolic Change

A change would be largely symbolic since the state's formal name is so rarely used. It appears on some state stationery and on documents like marriage licenses and elevator-inspection certificates. The official name also appears on the state seal, which is imprinted on the floor of the Statehouse Rotunda. Almeida says that the full name would not be removed from state buildings if the referendum were approved, but that state letterheads and documents would be updated when current supplies ran out.

He cites recent resolutions passed by the U.S. Congress apologizing for slavery as evidence that the name change is past due. "If Congress is apologizing and there's a change in the national attitude about slavery, not doing anything here would be foolish," Almeida says. "Rhode Island needs to recognize its past."